When a woman is planning on becoming pregnant, there are a number of things she can do to help make sure her pregnancy is a healthy one. One of these steps is eating a balanced diet and getting enough of the vitamin, folic acid, which can help prevent birth defects from occurring. Let me provide you with an overview of birth defects, the importance of folic acid and information about birth defects and the Hispanic community.
Neural Tube Defects (NTDs)
NTDs are a class of birth defects in which a baby’s brain or spinal cord doesn’t develop properly.
Of the four million women who give birth in the US each year, some 3,000 babies are born with NTDs. Put another way, approximately eight babies born in the United States each day have spina bifida or another NTD.
Since a baby’s spinal cord develops so early during pregnancy, neural tube defects happen in the first 3-4 weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows she is pregnant. Therefore, women need to pay attention to their eating habits before getting pregnant, since very few women understand that their diet before pregnancy plays an equally important role as their diet during pregnancy. And, with more than half of pregnancies in the U.S. unplanned, all women of reproductive age should follow a healthy diet, whether or not they are planning on having a baby.
The single biggest lifestyle step a woman can take to prevent spina bifida from happening is consuming enough folic acid before getting pregnant.
Folic acid is a B vitamin that helps cells grow and develop, which is why it’s so important for a developing spinal column. Enriched grains, such as white bread, tortillas, cereal and pasta, are the number one source of folic acid in the diets of most Americans. In fact, since the FDA required fortification of enriched grains with folic acid in 1998, the number of babies born in the United States with neural-tube birth defects has declined by 36 percent Hispanics and non- Hispanic whites alike.1 Because of this significant reduction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named folic acid fortification of enriched grains as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the last decade.
Sources of Folic Acid
• Enriched grains such as white bread, pasta, white rice, flour tortillas, breakfast cereal, crackers, bagels
• Leafy green vegetables
• Orange Juice
The Latino Community
Hispanic women are twice as likely as the rest of the population to have a baby born with a neural tube birth defect.
Hispanic women are less likely than non-Hispanic, white women to make a connection between folic acid and birth defects prevention. Because Hispanic women are more likely to have a child born with a neural tube defect, it is critical that they boost their folic acid intake before they get pregnant. Eating enriched grains – like white bread, white rice and flour tortillas - are an easy way to meet folic acid requirements.
Following a Balanced Diet
For a balanced diet, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend at least six one-ounce servings of grains daily.
Three of these servings should come from whole grain sources and the remaining three from enriched. As part of healthful diet, this helps ensure adequate folic acid intake. For women who have trouble getting enough folic acid, talk with your doctor or registered dietitian if you’re thinking of becoming pregnant or of child-bearing age.
The Grain Foods Foundation, a joint venture of members of the milling, baking and allied industries formed in 2004, is dedicated to advancing the public’s understanding of the beneficial role grain-based foods play in the human diet. Directed by a board of trustees, funding for the Foundation is provided through voluntary donations from private grain-based food companies and is supplemented by industry associations. For more information about the Grain Foods Foundation, visit gowiththegrain.org, or find GoWithTheGrain on Facebook and Twitter.
Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, MS, RD Hispanic Food Communications.